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Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Adventure of English

Recently, Audible had a $4.95 sale for members. At that price, I decided I could afford to try a few books, but I ended up with only one: The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg. It's a history of the English language through the ages, and as a major word geek, I couldn't resist.

First, I think that this is one book that is greatly enhanced by being in audio and would recommend hearing it instead of reading it. The narrator does the different dialects from old English to middle English to Scots, Irish, Australian, American, Caribbean and a host of others. That's something that the written word can't convey the way the spoken word can, and for me, it added a lot to the information. Hearing old English spoken was a first for me and I found it pretty cool.

Second, this book also proved that the narrator can make or break an audio edition. Luckily, I found this man very easy to listen to, and to my ears, he sounded dead on with his accents. Of course, I have no experience with old English, but still, it sounded good to me. :-)

The history of English is actually pretty fascinating. It could have died out when the Normans invaded England, but was helped along by a war with France and the plague. English borrowed heavily from French at several junctures and the Norman invasion was merely the first wave. We also have stolen words from just about every other language on the planet.

My favorite part of the book was the beginning and through the medieval period. I found the parts on American English riveting, too, but since I'm American, I figure I'm a bit biased there. As I listened, we went through a battalion of words and where they came from, but it was done in a fascinating way and I loved it! Chocolate is Aztec via Spanish. The most common words in English are nearly all from the root language that English grew out of. Skyscraper in its current definition came from American English, but it had previous meanings, including a ship's sail, a hat, and a tall person.

Not all of the history of English was comfortable to listen to, but I suppose that's to be expected. To give the language a fair look, one does have to take the bad with the good.

I truly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it in audio format, but I did have a couple of things that I didn't love. I wish some of the topics and/or time periods could have been looked at in more depth. At approximately 12 hours long, there wasn't room for a great deal of deeper analysis and I would have enjoyed spending more time on things.

An example would be "The Great Vowel Shift" that happened after the English language had been standardized in spelling (mostly) and which is why many of our words are spelled differently than they're pronounced. What we hear is that it's too lengthy to get into, and I can understand that, but I would have at least appreciated hearing a brief summary or overview of how the vowels shifted. As it stood, I was left curious as all get out, but with no answers.

The other thing I would have liked to have seen mentioned was the effect of media on the language. The book talks about English moving forward because of the financial might of the countries that speak English, but it doesn't really mention the effect of say, movies. Let's face it, for a long time, Hollywood was the world's movie capital. Wouldn't that have an effect on speech around the world? What about the effect it had on promoting American English over British English across the world?

At the end, the author talks about how the world's English might split off into different dialects the way Latin split off into Italian, French, etc, but wouldn't a worldwide media situation like we have now promote a more homogenous language instead of less? That question wasn't even raised let alone answered and I was curious.

But the things that bothered me were few and the large majority of the book was awesome. Highly recommend.